VA wants 180,000 new devices to support telework, telehealth during pandemic

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Money to purchase 180,000 devices for telework and telehealth is part of the the Department of Veterans Affairs’ supplemental appropriations request to Congress, sources familiar with the matter told FedScoop.

Specifically, the VA says it needs 100,000 laptops to support “maximum telework” directives, 30,000 laptops for telehealth operations and 50,000 iPads for veterans to be able to access telehealth, the sources said.

The hardware falls under a $1.2 billion request for the department’s “Information Technology Systems account” to support the “quick shift” to telehealth and social distance working, according to an Office and Management and Budget memo earlier this week. Overall the VA is requesting $16.6 billion in extra fiscal 2020 funds to ensure it can continue its operations during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unclear exactly how much the hardware will cost, or how much it will cost to transport the devices across the country to hospitals, administrative staff and veterans. The current system for distribution can ship iPads to veterans that are pre-linked to their health records, said Douglas Boyer, chief health informatics officer for the South Texas VA hospital in San Antonio.

Boyer confirmed that the VA is planning to ramp up telehealth capabilities to meet the demand as veterans are asked to stay home from elective health care, but could not confirm the number of iPads the VA is expecting to buy.

“The entire VA has really aggressively prepared for this,” Boyer said.

The OMB memo to Congress noted the VA also needs to upgrade bandwidth to conduct teleworking operations — something that other agencies are struggling with — as well as telehealth on top of that.

Boyer said that so far the Audie L. Murphy Memorial VA hospital has not had any “bumps in the road yet” with more than 115 employees teleworking and more in the pipeline to be approved to work remotely.

A source familiar with the IT budget request said it is likely to increase before it is passed into law. Congressional appropriators are still sizing up OMB’s supplemental request, which totals $45.8 billion across the entire government. It could be folded into other coronavirus-response legislation or passed on its own, reports said.

To put the $1.2 billion IT request in perspective: The VA requested nearly $5 billion for its entire Office of Information and Technology budget for fiscal 2021.

Department-level officials did not return a request for comment on the details of the supplemental request.

The VA predicts 20 percent of veterans, who tend to be older than the general population and have underlying health conditions, to be infected with the virus. Already 130 veterans have tested positive and two have died, according to the department.

The VA serves around 9 million veterans at its 170 medical centers across the country. Since it’s the nation’s largest health system, it is also prepping to back up the private-sector health care system if hospitals become overwhelmed with patients who have contracted COVID-19.

The VA has previously touted its telehealth capabilities as a means to reach veterans who live in rural areas.

“By the end of FY 2020, all primary care and mental health providers will be able to deliver care to patients, both in-person and via a mobile or web-based device,” Richard Stone, the executive-in-charge of the Veterans Health Administration, told lawmakers in February. The unprecedented speed of the virus’s spread and the need to send non-mission critical staff home to work remotely has caused the VA to need the extra funding. It’s unclear how they will manage all the new devices that need already tight bandwidth to operate.

Speaking of the VA’s telehealth preparedness, Boyer said: “This has uniquely positioned us to be able to respond to a situation just like this and expect the best possible outcomes,”

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appropriations, coronavirus, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), hardware, health care, telehealth, telework
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